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Review: Nuclear Family at UCD DramSoc Theatre

Brian Lynch reviews Laurence Childs’ character-orientated examination of intimacy, which struggles to balance interesting ideas with an impactful production. Photo credit: UCD Dramsoc.

In 2015, the New York Times published an article entitled 36 Questions to Fall in Love which was based on research of Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York. Aron and his team developed a set of increasingly intimate questions which, reportedly, could foster closeness and perhaps love between two strangers, ending in sustained, silent eye contact for up to 4 minutes.

The popularity of the Times piece has provided Laurence Childs with the basis for his new play, Nuclear Family, which explores the perils of intimacy in the average middle class family by turning the premise of the article on its head. Set over a 24-hour period in a family of five, it details the slow, imminent implosion of a family overburdened by individual demons. Misty (Alex Smith) suffers from an unnamed mental issue. Niamh (Niamh Scully) endures the casual undermining of her already low self-esteem. Thomas (Darragh Lawlor) is the only character to appear to have his life in order, but shows ominous signs of drifting in the same direction as his neglectful, tortured and borderline abusive father (Oisin O’Donoghue). Overseeing this is Lucy Richards-Smyrk as the overworked and underloved matriarch, who ineffectually tries to stop the clan from tearing itself apart. Every member of the family manages to exacerbate each other’s problems with barbed comments, pointed questions and the tensions that result from living in such close proximity.

High praise is due to Lucy Richards-Smyrk and Oisin O’Donoghue who manage to be utterly convincing as the weary and imperfect parents

The cast is easily the strongest element of this production. High praise is due to Lucy Richards-Smyrk and Oisin O’Donoghue who manage to be utterly convincing as the weary and imperfect parents. Both manage to capture middle-aged disillusionment so perfectly, that it makes it hard to believe that the two are of similar age to the rest of the cast. Luckily, despite the strength of these performances, the rest of the cast excel in their roles and never overshadow each other. In addition, they show no signs of trouble with the significant demands of the script.

Worst of all, the plot simply cannot focus on anything long enough to say something profound or original

Childs is a very capable writer and extremely effective painter of characters, but this play is ultimately too unfocused for either of those talents to fully shine. There are simply too many ideas crammed into this work and as a result many of them are not executed satisfactorily. The audience involvement is half-hearted, as are the voice-over clips. The projector as a narrative device is misused and prone to going awry. Worst of all, the plot simply cannot focus on anything long enough to say something profound or original, and ends up sounding clichéd and trite when it tries.

This is all a tremendous pity as there is real talent on display and much that works; for instance, the unsettling, atmospheric soundtrack and set design are superb at evoking the sheer toxicity of the family’s home. Lawrence’s talent is clearly significant, but perhaps needs a little more time to develop.

Nuclear Family ran from the 4th to the 8th of February at 1pm at UCD DramSoc Theatre in the New Student Centre.